Elena Shvarts Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Elena Shvarts 1948-

(Full name Elena Andréevna Shvarts) Russian poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Shvarts's works 1989 through 2002.

Shvarts is considered one of the most innovative and talented poets in Russia. Critics laud her humorous, provocative verse that often focuses on universal aspects of the female experience. Her poetry has been compared to such prestigious Russian female poets as Anna Akhmatova, Olga Sedakova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.

Biographical Information

Shvarts was born on May 17, 1948, in Leningrad, U.S.S.R, which is present-day St. Petersburg, Russia. Her parents separated when she was very young and she was raised by her mother, who was a writer at the Leningrad Dramatic Theater. Her upbringing was privileged, and she was able to pursue her interest in poetry from a young age. She studied philology for a year at Leningrad State University and eventually graduated from the Leningrad Theater Institute. In 1973 her first poems appeared in the student newspaper of Tartu University; after a few years, her poetry was published in émigré publications outside of the Soviet Union. She began to travel to read her poetry and soon she attracted a strong following for her work. In the mid-1980s her poems appeared in more mainstream journals and a few were translated into English. Her collections have garnered growing attention in Russia. She continues to reside in her hometown of St. Petersburg.

Major Works

Using both short lyrics and long poetic cycles, Shvarts's verse often explores various aspects of the feminine condition. Although not overtly feminist in nature, her verse centers on metaphysical and physical elements of the feminine experience. In her long poetic cycle Trudy i dni Lavinii (The Works and Days of Lavinia, a Nun from the Order of the Circumcision of the Heart, 1987), she utilizes the character of Lavinia, a unorthodox nun who struggles to overcome her sexual desires, to investigate women's relationship to God as well as women's place in the world. Another of Shvarts's characters, the legendary Roman poet Cynthia, uses contemporary language to survey universal female concerns such as sexuality, societal expectations, and violence. In Shvarts's verse, the body has been a recurring image. In “The Invisible Hunter,” the poet compares the pattern of birthmarks on her body to that of constellations and a sheet of music. In “Elegy on an X-ray of My Skull,” the poet alludes to the myth of Marsyas, the poet tortured and killed by Apollo as punishment for his pride in his verse. The poem touches on issues of death, alienation from one's physical form, the role of artist in society, and the ephemeral nature of the physical body. Sensuality is another focus of Shvarts's work. “Horror Eroticus” includes repeated disturbing images of sexual intercourse—which is compared to assault and murder—as well as themes of guilt, disgust, and physical and emotional intimacy. In “And Then You Said the Words,” a couple's sexual relationship is compared to that of two cats, in which sex is a physical need but does not require sentiment or obligation. Another recurring theme in Shvarts's poetry is her identity as a Russian poet. In “Kindergarten After Thirty Years” she juxtaposes images of the vacant lots and abandoned industrial buildings of contemporary St. Petersburg against the rich cultural history of the city.

Critical Reception

Because most of Shvarts's verse collections have not been translated into English, her work has not garnered a wide popular following in the West. Yet in Russia, she is viewed as one of the most original and vital poets of her day. Critics commend her innovative use of the poetic form, which they assert results in vivid and dynamic verse. In addition, they laud the humor and irony in her poetry and consider the prominent role of religion in her work. Shvarts's utilization of images from her hometown of St. Petersburg as well as classical settings and historical characters and references has been another recurring interest for critics. A few reviewers have investigated her place in the Russian poetic tradition, and argue that she defies easy classification. She has been compared to such female Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova, Olga Sedakova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as the renowned author Fyodor Doestovsky.